Making a Murderer is Making Viewers Curious About Brain Fingerprinting

Netflix
Netflix

After making its premiere in December 2015, the 10-part Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer helped usher in a new genre in streaming entertainment: true crime binge-watching. Viewers were gripped by the story of Steven Avery, a junkyard owner accused of murdering freelance photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005, and the dubious testimony of Avery's 16-year-old nephew—and alleged co-conspirator—Brendan Dassey. Avery had been convicted of a separate crime once before and served 18 years in prison before DNA exonerated him. Holes in the state of Wisconsin’s argument in the Halbach case abound, and grassroots efforts sprung up to argue that Avery had once again been wrongly convicted.

In episode two of season two, which launched on Netflix last week, Avery’s new defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner, asks Avery to submit to a curious examination informally known as “brain fingerprinting.” Wearing a head-mounted sensor that looks a little like the Cerebro helmet donned by Professor X in the X-Men comics and films, Avery is exposed to details of the crime only the perpetrator would know. The sensor can purportedly pick up the electrical signals in the brain of someone experiencing a wave of recognition, indicating they might be the guilty party.

In an otherwise grounded show, this felt like an excerpt from a science-fiction series. Is brain fingerprinting really reliable?

The forensics community isn’t really sure.

The test, which was developed by Lawrence Farwell, Ph.D. and first used in an active criminal investigation in 1999, looks for the P300 response—a surge of electrical activity in the brain roughly 300 milliseconds after a person sees something familiar to them, usually a written detail or image. Instead of looking for a physiological response in a polygraph, or “lie detector” test, Farwell’s method confines its reading to the brain via an EEG wave.

Farwell states that the test, which he calls Farwell Brain Fingerprinting, has never resulted in a false-positive or false-negative result. He says research supervised by the FBI, the U.S. Navy, and the CIA has confirmed its accuracy, and Farwell has published papers about the technique in scientific journals. In a case described on Farwell’s website, convicted murderer Terry Harrington was exonerated after he passed a brain fingerprint test and an eyewitness subsequently recanted her incriminating testimony. Farwell even offers a $100,000 bounty to anyone who can beat the test, a prize he says has yet to be claimed.

Critics of Farwell’s technique say his peer-reviewed studies have been limited to just 30 participants total, a small sample size. One study comparing the P300 response to the polygraph found some guilty subjects passed the brain fingerprint test simply by not paying attention to the images meant to trigger a response. Additionally, there have been relatively few tests conducted on truly guilty parties with psychopathic or mentally ill pathologies.

In short: There just isn't enough data to show that brain fingerprinting is as accurate as Farwell claims—or that it should be admissable in court. As for Avery: He passed his test with flying colors.

[h/t Digital Spy]

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What Really Happens When Food Goes Down the 'Wrong Pipe'?

The dreaded 'wrong pipe' calamity can strike at any time.
The dreaded 'wrong pipe' calamity can strike at any time.
Photo by Adrienn from Pexels

Your average person isn’t expected to be well-versed in the linguistics of human anatomy, which is how we wind up with guns for biceps and noggins for heads. So when swallowing something is followed by throat irritation or coughing, the fleeting bit of discomfort is often described as food “going down the wrong pipe.” But what’s actually happening?

When food is consumed, HuffPost reports, more than 30 muscles activate to facilitate chewing and swallowing. When the food is ready to leave your tongue and head down to your stomach, it’s poised near the ends of two "pipes," the esophagus and the trachea. You want the food to take the esophageal route, which leads to the stomach. Your body knows this, which is why the voice box and epiglottis shift to close off the trachea, the “wrong pipe” of ingestion.

Since we don’t typically hold our breath when we eat, food can occasionally take a wrong turn into the trachea, an unpleasant scenario known as aspiration, which triggers an adrenaline response and provokes coughing and discomfort. Dislodging the food usually eases the sensation, but if it’s enough to become stuck, you have an obstructed airway and can now be officially said to be choking.

The “wrong pipe” can also be a result of eating while tired or otherwise distracted or the result of a mechanical problem owing to illness or injury.

You might also notice that this happens more often with liquids. A sip of water may provoke a coughing attack. That’s because liquids move much more quickly, giving the body less time to react.

In extreme cases, food or liquids headed in the “wrong” direction can wind up in the lungs and cause pneumonia. Fortunately, that’s uncommon, and coughing tends to get the food moving back into the esophagus.

The best way to minimize the chances of getting food stuck is to avoid talking with your mouth full—yes, your parents were right—and thoroughly chew sensible portions.

If you experience repeated bouts of aspiration, it’s possible an underlying swallowing disorder or neurological problem is to blame. An X-ray or other tests can help diagnose the issue.

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